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Excerpt from The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Wives of Henry Oades

A Novel

by Johanna Moran

The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran X
The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran
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    Feb 2010, 384 pages


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London was behind them now, the hawkers and filth, the soot-belching chimney pots, the piles of manure in the streets, the raw sewage in the black water. Margaret had visited once before. It's good to get to know other things and places, Henry had said on the train. She'd agreed aloud, but not in her heart. At thirty-two she was a contented homebody, John and Josephine's mum, Henry's wife. It was enough, more than enough. She knew all she needed to know about other things and places.

The tender rounded a rocky promontory. A row of small cottages went by, lighted from within, the mothers in them tucked away, minding their worlds, starting their suppers.

Henry spoke close to her ear, his breath warm as toast. "Think of the grand stories we'll tell in our sapless dotage."   She laughed a little. "Assuming we've the sap to see us to dotage."

He laughed too, releasing pent-up excitement. "That's my girl." He was as keen to go as she was not. He hoisted John and put a fist, a make-believe telescope, to John's eye. "Now watch for our ship, boy. She'll come into view any moment now."

A shout came from above. "Ahoy! There she is!"

The passengers stampeded toward the bow. Henry and the children fell in, joining the stream. Margaret stood rigid, the blood quickening in her veins. The Lady Ophelia was enormous, majestic. She came with sails as well as steam. Four towering masts swayed against a pewter sky, as if unstable.

Henry called to Margaret. She scanned the throng, spotting them ahead, larky children shrieking, Henry waving her forward. She gripped the burnished rail and began to inch her way toward them, the deck seesawing beneath her feet, her insides turning. "Like walking about in your own best room," the prevaricating uncle had said.

They'd not been on board the Lady Ophelia five minutes when John stumbled over a coil of rope and fell, scraping his knee. A uniformed officer was on him immediately, setting him to. The deck was positively littered with ropes, with winches and chains, drums and casks, all manner of object designed to draw a curious boy close to the rail. She'd need to watch the children every second of the day.

"There's some confusion in the ladies' section, sir," the officer said to Henry. "You're wanted straightaway."   The ship's doctor came up, offering Margaret and the children a tour in Henry's absence.

Henry cheerfully accepted on Margaret's behalf, before she could decide or get the first word out. They were led down a narrow corridor and shown the maple-paneled library, and then a card room, and yet another social room with a piano, an Oriental rug, and plush velvet drapery.

"It's all quite impressive," said Margaret, calmer now. It helped to be inside, away from the rail. By the time they reached the hectic dining hall she was feeling rather human again. The roast lamb smelled delicious. How novel to sit down to a meal she hadn't so much as pared a potato for.

Dr. Pritchard escorted them to their cabin afterward, passing the animal pen along the way, where chickens mingled with pigs, and sheep stood with sad-looking dewlappy cows.

"We've the best of butchers aboard," said the doctor.

"Nice piggy," said Josephine, squatting, putting herself face-to-snout with a homely sow having her brown supper.   The grizzled old sailor inside the pen approached her. "You mustn't ever utter the word pig on board a ship, lassie. 'Twill bring the worst of luck. You're to say swiney instead."

"Come away, Pheeny," said Margaret, giving the frightening man a stern eye.

At the opposite rail two young African sailors struggled to unlatch a wooden lifeboat. "They're required to practice," said the doctor, "before each sailing."

The inept lads looked no older than twelve or thirteen. She would have to study the latching apparatus and teach herself how to unlock and release a boat. God help them should they need to rely on tots.

Excerpted from The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran Copyright © 2010 by Johanna Moran. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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